By Jon Milton,
“It really started when my best friend passed away,” says Cary Billey, who’d been working as a truck driver at the time. “I didn’t really know how to deal with that, so I started self-medicating. I hit bottom, where I lost my home, lost my job. I said, ‘I need to do something to change my life.’”
Billey went through a few different treatment services before someone recommended the McCullough Centre to him. He first came to the Centre about three years ago, and after leaving for a time, is back there today.
Sitting on the shores of Lac St. Anne, about an hour’s drive from Edmonton, the McCullough Centre is a complex of buildings which provides medium-term housing for men experiencing homelessness. It’s a unique experiment in addiction recovery—not a tightly structured 30-day program, but rather an open-ended community focused on helping participants rebuild their lives, their self-esteem, and their social ties. For Billey, it’s been the McCullough Centre’s unique style of programming that has been most helpful in getting his life back on track.
But today, Billey is nervous. He’s one of six residents still at the Centre, which the provincial government ordered to stop intake of new participants in August 2019. McCullough has the capacity to house 75 people. Then, in late October, government officials served the staff at McCullough with a notice that the Centre would permanently close in early 2021. At that moment, there was a waiting list of 150 people trying to access the Centre’s services.
“I knew that when the Conservatives came into power, that was really going to be the beginning of the end,” Billey says. “The government does what it wants, and some people get burned in the process.”
For Susan Slade, a Vice-President at AUPE, the closure of McCullough hits home. Before being elected as VP, Slade worked as a Licensed Practical Nurse, and treated patients who are dealing with mental health and addictions issues—the same type of patients who need services like McCullough.
“It was absolutely devastating to hear that the government was choosing to close the Centre,” Slade says. “The Centre addresses the issue of homelessness, and there’s a public push to end homelessness. So, we can clearly see what this government’s priorities are.”
The heartless priorities behind the closure of the McCullough Centre are purely budgetary. The letter announcing the closure of the centre, released in October, provides a short paragraph on the subject. “The McCullough Centre will be closing,” reads the letter. “Due to current staffing pressures, budget management strategies, and the anticipated future closure of the site, a pause on intake has been in place since August 26, 2019.”
That logic—of cutting small budget lines at the expense of human lives—has been the defining feature of the UCP government, marking it as among the most hardline conservative governments in Alberta’s history. Even Ralph Klein, who dismantled public services at an unprecedented scale, didn’t touch the Gunn Centre, as McCullough was called at the time.
Klein may have been single-mindedly focused on dismantling the social safety net, but even with that vision, he knew that Alberta couldn’t function without at least some services. Jason Kenney has no such hesitations.
“It was absolutely devastating to hear that the government was choosing to close the Centre... We can clearly see what this government’s priorities are."
Life at the McCullough Centre
If the Centre today is embedded deeply in the Lac St. Anne region, it’s because it has deep roots there.
“For a long time, the community at McCullough was basically self-sustaining,” says Slade about the centre’s roots. “A lot of the participants actually help out in the community as well. They do yard work and they work at the Esso.”
Michael Toepfer also knows about those roots. He’s been working at McCullough for years—his current position is a Team Lead—and carries an encyclopedic knowledge of its history. He says that the idea behind McCullough goes back at least to the “Dirty Thirties” of the Great Depression, when the combination of economic crisis and drought made homelessness explode on the prairies. But McCullough really came to be in the 1940s, as a relief camp for men returning from the Second World War.
“The whole history of the Centre is to house people in need,” Toepfer says. “Obviously that looked different in the 1940s to now, but that’s what connects it all. The Centre aligned itself with that mandate to end homelessness,” referencing a 2008 provincial a 10-year plan to end homelessness. “The Centre really retooled itself to be a part of those efforts. There has been a lot of efforts over the past five years or so to make it more program-based.”
Cary Billey describes the programs of a regular day at McCullough—ranging from skills and employment workshops, physical exercise in an on-site fitness area, individual or group therapy, to trips to recreational centers in nearby towns. There was spiritual activity, with priests and pastors available for Christians, smudges and sweat lodges available for Indigenous participants, and so on. Participants could get fishing permits on-site, and fish in the lake. They could attend recovery courses, like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous. They could watch TED Talks. They had a physician on staff, so participants could see a doctor, often for the first time in a long time. They had an LPN and a dietician.
“If you can think of any type of support you need, they’d have it for you,” Billey says. “They’d give you the choice if you wanted to participate or not. They wouldn’t force you, but they’d just support you if you wanted to get more involved.”
“It’s a fairly unique model—it’s a place that doesn’t exist anywhere in that way, shape or form anywhere in the province, or probably in the country,” Toepfer says. “Geared towards long-term recovery, not quick turnaround.
“We’ve just constantly been building towards building wraparound supports beyond those 30-day addiction programs that a lot of the men had done in their lives,” Toepfer says. “And then what? They walked out of those treatments, and they didn’t necessarily have their medication, housing, a job.”
“The government, in my mind, is looking to take an assembly-line approach to how they deal with the complex needs of people. Quick turnaround, high efficiency, more impersonal services thrown at people to get them back to work."
Toepfer had been following the government’s announcements about coming investments in “recovery communities” across the province, hoping that McCullough would receive some of that funding. Instead he lost his job, and so did everyone else he works with. The decision blindsided him.
“We were like mushrooms,” Toepfer says, “kept in the dark and fed you-know-what.”
Slade was at the meeting where the closure was announced. “It was a horrible meeting,” she says. “They just brought everyone into a room, and said sorry, your job has been abolished. Help us close the place down.”
“These are 60-odd jobs where people now have to scramble,” Toepfer says. “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, we don’t know how long it’s going to last, the number of cases is going up. Now we have 60 more people who are going to be on EI. If your intent is to create jobs, you’re not doing a good job at it. “
For Toepfer, one of the most nonsensical aspects of the closure is that a brand new, just-built, $8 million servicing center on the property. It has never even been used—and if the closure is successful, it never will be.
“It’s almost like it’s laughing at us,” Toepfer says.
It’s unclear what’s going to happen to the land after the Centre is closed. While the UCP has announced that it is directing millions of dollars to new recovery initiatives—which it claims will be modeled on the successful Portugal model—specifics about the plan have been scarce. So far, Toepfer says, it has mostly been additional beds in existing facilities.
“The government, in my mind, is looking to take an assembly-line approach to how they deal with the complex needs of people,” Toepfer says. “Quick turnaround, high efficiency, more impersonal services thrown at people to get them back to work.
“I knew that when the Conservatives came into power, that was really going to be the beginning of the end. The government does what it wants, and some people get burned in the process.”
“What you learn working at a place like McCullough is that people’s lives go much beyond that. You learn where people derive meaning from in their lives, what fills them out, and how much their lives have been rattled by addiction, by trauma, by abuse in early childhood—you name it. The current philosophy is that everyone needs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and quit whining. It just doesn’t capture the inherent value of spending extended periods of time with people and getting a clear sense of what their hopes and dreams are, and how they got thwarted on the way.”
Now, Toepfer says, “the people who need these services will be left out in the cold—literally and figuratively.” But the locks at McCullough haven’t been changed, at least not yet. Toepfer and his co-workers are getting ready to fight to keep the centre open. They’ve started a petition to the government. They’re building alliances with others in the community, and preparing for a battle to save one of Alberta’s most important social services.
The UCP is trying to dismantle social services for the most vulnerable Albertans. And as they’ve made clear with their attacks on Alberta Health Services, they don’t plan on stopping there—they plan on dismantling public services that all Albertans rely on. The fight to save the McCullough Centre should be viewed in this context—if the UCP succeeds in closing it, they will be coming for all of us afterwards. But if the fightback against the closure is successful, it could be the action that makes the UCP re-think its strategy.
As the old labour slogan goes, an injury to one is an injury to all. This fight is all of our fight.
For his part, Billey is still at McCullough, waiting to learn where he will be going next if the Centre is closed. He’s been reflecting on his time, and how the workers there have affected his life.
“I just want to thank all the people that work here, I’ve never met a bad person here,” Billey says. “I just want to thank them for helping me try to get my shit together.”